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Democracy in Peril: Ten Elections to Watch in 2018

by Timothy D. Sisk for Denver Dialogues

Democracy’s resilience into the 21st century is rightly questioned. In 2017, a host of countries worldwide saw threats to civil and political liberties, popular participation, and fundamental human rights.  Corruption and state capture by predatory political elites led the news in old and new democracies alike. Verbal and physical attacks on civil society, the press, and minorities were reported in virtually all world regions.  And new virulent, nationalist ideologies threaten human rights and the carefully crafted post-World War II international liberal order.

The perils of 2017 only underscore a chorus of concern about democracy’s decline that some observers say began nearly a decade ago. In scholarly and practitioner circles, the debate over how democracy is in decline worldwide and the conditions under which democracy can be resilientDemocracy, though, should not be in decline as historically its growth is associated with deep drivers within society such as rising levels of education, income, and urbanization which then lead to “demands” for democracy (possibly, such as the pro-democracy “Umbrella” youth movement in Hong Kong).

Elections Test Democracy’s Resilience

In late 2017, International IDEA (an intergovernmental organization based in Stockholm dedicated to democracy) released a major new global report–The Global State of Democracy: Exploring Democracy’s Resilience– to such explore challenges and threats and the ways in which democratic systems may recover, adapt, and innovate to address such threats.  The IDEA report finds that while some countries have declined in their democracy performance, others have gained and–as of yet–there is no clear downward trend.  And, in a chapter on the conditions for resilience (chapter 2), I argue that democracy may be resilient (survival through flexibility, adaptation, innovation, and recovery) when citizens and civil society mobilize to protect democratic rights, when institutional checks and balances promote accountability and transparency, and when there is supportive international action (often through regional organizations) to intervene and facilitate democratic transitions.

2018: Ten to Watch

2018 promises to be equally perilous: it could well be dubbed “The Year of Elections.”  Ten countries with upcoming elections in 2018 deserve close watching: each of them is, in their own way, a test of democracy’s resilience in an era of change, challenge, and crisis.  While there are other important elections on the horizon in 2018 as well–notably Cambodia, Cyprus, Czechia, Egypt, and Russia–for testing democracy’s resilience, these are the ones to watch.  From Afghanistan and Colombia to Sweden and Venezuela, these 2018 elections will be each a unique test of democracy’s resilience.

  1. Afghanistan. Afghanistan is slated for elections to its 250-member House of the People on July 7th.  The elections are already at-risk due to debates about replacing the Single Non-Transferable Vote electoral system (SNTV) and the ubiquitous problem of voter registration (which has long been a problematic effort in the war-torn country).  The parliamentary elections were delayed by decree from President Ashraf Ghani in 2016 amidst disputes about SNTV, boundary delimitation, and the composition and role of the electoral commission.

The backdrop for the high-risk Afghanistan July elections is the ongoing wave of violence in both rural areas and the capital, including increasing attacks in the capital that in October killed civilians at a rate of 250 per week. At best, something approaching a credible election may be a small step forward in a country that is as a higher order need struggling to establish the authority of the state.

  1. Bosnians are expected to go to the polls on October 7th to elect three members of an ethnic rotating presidency comprised of a Bosniak, Croat, and Serb.  Each member is elected by plurality, although following the antiquated terms of the 1995 Dayton peace-agreement constitution through which the Serb representative is elected separately in that province carved out during the war along ethnic lines.  The plurality vote is problematic in that it easily lend to a hyper-nationalist candidate being elected in the entities by a slim, minimum-winning coalition of votes.

Bosnia’s post-Dayton democracy has persistently struggled with nationalist politics, and the 2018 election will be no exception.  The principal question is whether a liberal, left-of-center buy assuredly nationalist coalition can prevail over a rightist-oriented nativist coalition seeking to claim an exclusive ethno-religious claim to national identity. At issue in Bosnia will be the 42-member House of Representatives, which is elected by proportional representation in the two federal entities.  Alarming from some, the Serb-dominated Republic Srbska may well see strong electoral performance of the potentially secessionist Serb Democratic Party.

  1. Colombia faces the next phase in its process of war-to-full democracy represented by the landmark 2016 Havana peace agreement that seeks to politically integrate the rebel-group FARC with a guaranteed ten seats in parliament: five in the House, five in the Senate. Colombians will vote in March for 196 members of the House by proportional representation (mixed-member districts) divvied up by governance department. Presidential elections are then scheduled for May 2018 with a runoff likely in early June given the two-round, majority-producing process to choose the president.  2018 will be the first fully inclusive public test of the peace process.

Elections pose significant risks, and opportunities, for the implementing Havana and for witnessing an inclusive democracy in Colombia. Since incumbent President Juan dos Santos can’t run (he’s had two terms), it will be up to the new presidential candidates to define the way forward for the done-deal peace process.  In was only in October 2016, that slim majority of 50.22% of Colombians rejected the deal with the FARC. Locally, the 2018 elections will be one of the first opportunities for the country to attempt to experience a “normal” democracy. In Colombia, voters may deliver a different message: democracy and the peace process have not delivered on the promises, and the discontent may complicate a smooth path to peace.

  1. Cuba. In October 2017, some eight million Cuban voters participated in municipal elections which lead to provincial and national assemblies to produce the 612-member National Assembly of People’s Power. Since the 1959 revolution, elections in Cuba have been a game of Leninist “democracy” within the Communist Party; however, in October local-level polls, for the first-time opponents of the regime ran some candidates (who suffered from state-led harassment and intimidation).

But, Cuba is rapidly changing and opening, and the 2018 National Assembly elections are the first test of an emergent democracy in the post-Castro period. Since the Communist Part of Cuba is the only allowed political party, most analysts look at dynamics of the local in municipal councils and regional councils, and eventually to the National Assembly to be elected in late February for clues on further opening, and possibilities for improving transparency and accountability and, eventually, multi-party democracy.

Astute observers such as William LeoGrande at American University argue that the 2018 elections process in Cuban represents a real “changing of the guard.” Whether Cuba’s next steps will be toward democracy–or a more likely Deng Xiaoping/Chinese Communist Party-informed model of continued party supremacy—may well be answered in the coming year. While Cuba’s single-party “democracy” may not be under imminent threat, it’s long-awaited transition to multiparty democracy hangs in the balance.

  1. Mali’s presidential elections scheduled for the very end of December are a critical part of the political track of moving Mali out of the category of “failed” states in which the UN has intervened with peacekeeping and governance support (in Mali, in the form of MINUMSA.

Mali’s presidential elections campaign process is already under way as the incumbent president Ibrahim Baboubacar Keita seeks re-election and leading opposition parties have nominated candidates. The poll will feature the regionally common, French-inspired two-round presidential system. With a context of international peacekeeping presence, low state capacity, poor governance in rural areas, a jihadist insurgency (including recent attacks on U.N. peacekeepers), and deadly ethnic conflicts, Mali’s elections will be an important milestone in both restoring democracy and extending the state.

  1. Mexico. Political violence related to Mexico’s June presidential and parliamentary elections–slated for July 1–has already been reported.  This in a country that in the past years has seen its highest rates of armed violence ever recorded–in 2017 the country was ranked the second “most violent” globally (after Syria).

Mexico will see a change in regime as incumbent president Pena-Nieto is not up for re-election; Mexican presidents statutorily serve one term. In the presidential election, a plurality in a single round of voting wins, favoring the dominant political parties. In the 500-member Chamber of Deputies, 300 are elected in single-member districts and another 200 come from a nation-wide proportional representation ballot. Issues to watch in Mexico: violence, electoral fraud, intimidation of voters, civil society, and the press… and a likely unhelpful and erratic influence from Washington.

  1. Sweden. 349 members of the Riksdag (parliament) will be elected by proportional representation on September 9th. The Swedish elections are remarkable as Sweden has reportedly has been the target of a disinformation campaign (“fake news”) as a means of sowing discord in its changing and more multi-ethnic population and to weak its longstanding and mature democracy, all with fingers pointed at Russia. The Swedish Institute of International Affairs documented the ongoing campaign of meddling; they found “forgeries, disinformation, military threats and agents of influence and define Russian foreign policy strategy.”[1]  Can Sweden protect itself from foreign disinformation campaigns?
  2. The United States. In 2016, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded its measure of the quality of democracy in the United States, suggesting that country is now a “flawed democracy” from its longstanding rating as a “full democracy.” The cause? U.S. citizens increasingly distrust government. The Economist measure taps a strong threat to the resilience of U.S. democracy: trust in government is indicative of declining trust in society: a consequence of worsening conflict beyond nationalist and liberal/multiculturalist impulses in U.S. society.

At stake in 2018 in the United States elections to be held November 6, 2018 are all seats in the 435-member House of Representatives, 34 races in the Senate (33 regular-rotation or Class I seats, plus as special election in Minnesota. Contests are run as first-past-the-post.  The November 2018 U.S. elections are “mid-term” elections… meaning they come in the middle of the election of the initial term of President Donald Trump.

The U.S. mid-terms for the all-important House of Representative seats suffers from some of the same disadvantages as other single-member district systems. Boundary delimitation (districting) has been political manipulated in state legislatures, districts are drawn to be vulnerable to ethnic or exclusivist appeals, and they are vulnerable to disproportional outcomes (differences between vote share and seat share).  Bruising primary polls will come first; continued polarization in U.S. politics is a given in the current climate.

  1. Venezuela. The once-failing regime of President Nicolás Maduro sees a revival in elections slated in the crisis-ridden country in 2018.  Although the elections are scheduled for December, they may be moved forward according to the electoral system.  With an electoral system of single-round plurality voting, presidential elections in Venezuela are about getting and maintaining a minimum-winning coalition.

With most opposition figures exiled or in jail, a deeply protest-fatigued population, and a regime with access to oil-related resources, it appears Venezuela’s elections may well be a case study in the predatory politics of a “competitive authoritarian regime,” as described well by scholars Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. The 2018 elections may further continuity rather than change.

  1. Zimbabwe was the big year-end news story for democracy globally, perhaps suggesting that over time people will prefer more, not less, democracy and that they will be able to topple the most intransigent political elites. However, observers are right to point to the possibility of a very limited political transition in Zimbabwe given the internal succession within the ruling ZANU-PF regime of new president, Emmerson Manangwa who became the incumbent president after the military-led ouster of longtime liberation-era ruler Robert Mugabe at the end of last year.

Although the timing remains uncertain, early indications are that Zimbabwe’s elections could be held in September 2018.  These would ostensibly include presidential elections (Manangwa is serving out the remainder of Mugabe’s term) to be held on a two-round system and parliamentary (270 seats in the House of Assembly and 80 for the Senate). In the House, 210 seats are elected by single-member districts and 60 are reserved for women in ten 6-seat constituencies). On the Senate, 60 seats will be contested by proportional reservation (with 20 seats reserved, two for those with disabilities and 18 for traditional leaders).

The 2018 elections in Zimbabwe will be the test for the evolution of a true democracy in the country after the disastrous years of inept and corrupt Mugabe rule; all previous elections had been so manipulated by the ruling party (ZANU-PF) that the country has never had a true chance at democratic consolidation since its emergence in 1981.

 

[1] Kragh, Marin and Sebastian Åsberg, “Russia’s Strategy for Influence through Diplomacy and Active Measures: The Swedish Case,” Journal of Strategic Studies 40 (6) (2017): 773-816,

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